OX meets Lemar
"I tried for 8 years to get into the music industry in the first place"
The careers of the overwhelming majority of TV talent show winners and contestants tend to go down one of two paths: either they maintain a reasonable level of fame singing songs provided for them by a team of writers, or they fade into relative obscurity and begin appearing in musical theatre productions.
There is, however, one member of this cohort who differs wildly from the blueprint: Lemar. Since finishing third in the inaugural series of the BBC’s Fame Academy, Lemar Obika has tirelessly written his own brand of soul-tinged R’n’B, releasing his most recent album The Letter just last year.
At the beginning of your career, did you encounter any opposition to your involvement in the writing process?
You know what, I was actually very fortunate because when I started out, I was really on the same page as the A&R guy that I signed to, and similarly with my management. I’ve always written music, and maybe if the first few tunes I came out with were complete rubbish then it would’ve been different, but the first one I wrote under Sony was Dance (With U) and the second one was 50/50. Those tracks were both really well received and I was encouraged to keep on writing from there.
Have you heard any similar experiences from your talent show peers?
To be honest, I don’t really know. With girl bands or boy bands they tend to just get a team of writers in, and obviously I haven’t followed that path, but there’s still something in recognising what is and what isn’t a good song. As much as I write songs and I love it, if a great song landed on the table from someone else and I thought I could do it justice, then I’d give it a shot as well.
How did it feel when you released your first record and you were suddenly performing in front of thousands of people?
It’s crazy. For me, I tried for 8 years to get into the music industry in the first place, so once I heard my songs on the radio for the first time it represented nearly a decade of struggling to get some kind of breakthrough. Getting that first bit of chart success and having people say to you “your song reminds me of a particular time”... that’s really, really fulfilling. Those first times are always memorable.
How did you managed to stay so grounded through those years?
I think I got [the success] at the right time. I was 24, and I had the same core friends around me who were part of my team, and very good management. My family stayed very close as well, and I think all those things do keep you on the ground.
Your first gig was supporting Usher in Tottenham. How did that come about?
There used to be a venue there called The Temple, opposite the police station. They’ve knocked it down and I think it’s now flats. I started recording with [production team] Best Kept Secret – they were working with Kele Le Roc back in the day and helped her get her record deal. I kept phoning up the promoter of the Usher show and he kept saying no, but I kept persisting and eventually he agreed to let me open the show. When I played the reaction was amazing and when American acts came to London I kept getting booked to play. That was really the catalyst to all the bookings I got later on.
What sort of music were you performing back then?
Straight-up R’n’B. I was listening to R Kelly, Boyz II Men, all that kind of stuff.
Do you have a particular highlight of your career that stands out?
There’s been so many. Performing with Lionel Richie or George Benson, supporting Mary J Blige and Beyoncé. There have been so many different performances or moments that I’ve had that I’m so grateful for.
Your new album The Letters has a much more classic soul sound compared to the more polished R’n’B that you’re known for. What made you think to write an album in that style?
Throughout my career, people have said to me “you remind of me of an Al Green or a Marvin” so I thought it’d be cool to do an album that celebrates that. Like you said, it’s old-school soul but with a few originals on there as well. It’s a bit more raw and not as overtly processed. It’s my sixth or seventh album, and after releasing so many original albums I just thought it would be fun to do something different, but to then go back to releasing my original material afterwards.
What was it like recording at EastWest Studios?
You know what, that was absolutely amazing. I go to LA quite a bit but EastWest was really something special. I was working with Larry Klein who’s a legendary producer, and some of the musicians were incredible as well. The backing singers, The Water Sisters, have recorded on so many records, from Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross & The Supremes, so to have them on my album was awe-inspiring.
Where do you see your sound developing for future albums?
I’m always partial to R’n’B, so I think it’ll continue as a combination of the soul and R’n’B flavours. I want to keep on expanding it, and the cool thing about musical creativity is that whatever happens in the studio happens. I’ve really learnt to go into the studio and just see what comes out, and after a while of recording there’ll always be one or two pieces that really stand out, and I’ll then try and head in that direction.
Are there any recent singers or groups that you particularly admire?
There’s an American band called Alabama Shakes who I really like. I love Leon Bridges as well, he’s a young American soul singer. Ed Sheeran had a good run, there were a couple of his tracks that I liked.
You’re playing at Cornbury this year. What sort of fans do you see at yourshows? Do you have many life-long, diehard fans?
It’s really varied. My first headline show at Shepherd’s Bush was, obviously, the first time I’d seen the people who had bought my album in front of me, and I was surprised by how varied it was, from 16 to 60. I’ve always tried to keep that in mind when writing - it’s a hard task to try and embrace that whole range and create music that they can all enjoy. Festivals are fantastic for that, you get the young people who love the R’n’B and then you get the older crowd who might just want to see someone with a good voice or hear some soul.
What are your plans in the future?
More than ever I feel like experimenting a bit, not just with music but across the board. I don’t feel like I’ve got much more to prove musically, I enjoy what I do and I think if people think of me and my albums they know what they’re going to get, so I think it’s about trying to expand into different stuff and stay interesting.